Sunday, January 15, 2012

What 3D should and should not be used for: Pina and the Beauty and the Beast re-release

3D had a strange, though somewhat predictable, 2011. In many ways, it was not just the continuation but the culmination of the medium's 2010: In that year, studios and exhibitors saw the enormous sums of money that Avatar made, in no small part because 3D both offered a compelling reason not to wait for video and a boost to the ticket price, and learned entirely the wrong lessons: Studios started doing rushed post-conversion 3D jobs on movies while theaters jacked the 3D surcharge from a reasonable $3 to numbers like $5 which demand a little more consideration of what you're getting. By the time 2011 started, audiences were getting wise to the fact that they were paying more for less return. As the summer went on, 3D-haters pounced upon every statistic that showed that what they disparaged as a mere gimmick was in decline and would probably soon die, noting with glee that the likes of Pirates of the Caribean 4 and Transformers 3 were getting much less of their revenue from 3D ticket sales than earlier releases, even though 3D tickets cost so much more. By the end of the year, it was easy to note that the format was in retreat: The third Chipmunks movie was not released in 3D even though the second one had been, and when theaters only opened a 3D movie on one screen, it was often split between 3D and 2D shows - and sometimes 3D wasn't offered at all (the Boston suburbs, Hugo opened at the film-only Somerville Theatre rather than the 3D-friendly Arlington Capitol; Fresh Pond only showed The Darkest Hour in 2D).

The ironic thing about this is that we're finally really starting to see what 3D can do. As much as I passed on Pirates and Transformers for having seen enough of their respective series already, they were captured in native 3D, and word was that Michael Bay knew what he was doing. And he wasn't the only big-name director shooting in 3D; this year featured Werner Herzog, Tarsem Singh, Matin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and, finally, Wim Wenders giving this stuff a try.

And what do you know, when actual talented people applied themselves to 3D with that third dimension taken into consideration from the beginning - though in different ways; Spielberg was doing motion-captured animation, while Joe Johnston reverted to traditional film and video for Captain America but taped a camcorder to his main camera to give the stereographers reference - the result was often quite impressive. I suspect that if you show people good presentations of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Hugo, Arthur Christmas, Tintin, and Pina (at a reasonable price), most will begrudgingly admit that 3D can be something other than a hollow gimmick.

So what does Disney do with 3D coming closer to reaching its proper place in the cinema? They try and ruin it.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, their 3D-ification of The Lion King was bad. It had some nifty-looking moments, but just as many that didn't look quite right. For Beauty and the Beast, multiply that ratio by something life four. This upconversion is a technical disaster, actually completed before the one for The Lion King and (I think) planned for an early-2010 release, only to have those plans quietly canceled and the film making a brief appearance down under that August. I can only guess that it's the result of people actually taking a look at it and realizing how terrible the stereography was, but not being able to resist hauling it out when The Lion King made so much money (would that this applied to the IMAX version of Aladdin that was allegedly completed but vaulted when the IMAX B&TB underperformed!).

What's so terrible about it? Well, one friend complained about how things like snow and rain were pushed to the extreme foreground and how the glasses "sucked all the life from the picture", but to be fair, I don't get the impression that he's not the type to give 3D a fair shake; it's on his list and never getting off. Now, I like of like the snow/rain thing (really, it's just an exaggeration of a common animation effect), and the dimming of the light is admittedly a problem that exhibitors and technicians really need to work on. But, it's part of the deal when you go to a 3D movie these days, and while complaining about it will hopefully lead to some improvement on those fronts, I think that there are much bigger, movie-specific fish to fry here.

The first mistake is more along the lines of a decision I would have made differently - Beauty and the Beast opens with backstory told via stained-glass-style illustrations, and wouldn't it just have popped more if, instead of using a 3D opening logo and environment before zooming into those, the movie started out in 2D and then jumped to 3D when the film proper started with "Belle"? I mean, go for the Wizard of Oz effect. Instead, Disney starts with 3D, flattens the picture out for the intro, and then switches back with a logo that, while it has overlapping elements, is clearly not designed for three-dimensional space.

Being designed for two dimensions is a problem that clearly carries over to the rest of the movie, too. As odd as it may be to say, The Lion King with its talking animals is actually a much more realistic-looking movie than Beauty and the Beast, which has a wide range of sizes for the human characters and then deforms even the least stylized (such as Belle) in ways that work fine in two dimensions but occasionally make her outstretched arms seem fifteen feet long in three. The scale of the Beast's castle is similarly distorted, as some overhead shots shrink the characters even more than they were meant to, and in some dizzying instances make it look like they are standing in mid-air as marble floors suddenly look like chasms. These are the direct result of trying to use effects for a consciously two-dimensional medium work in three, with mostly two dimensional elements to work with (even the coloring was mostly done to suggest texture as opposed to depth).

But there's also a lot of "people doing their job badly". I'm sure that a great many people involved have learned from their errors here and are doing better work on other conversion jobs with less ridiculous deadlines, but the errors here are unforgivable for a finished product that people are paying money to see. In one scene, Gaston's low-cut tunic seems to have his chest sticking out like a v-shaped wedge. In others, there's the sense that he's not actually touching the chair he's sitting in. There are moments when solid objects appear to move through other. When Le Fou is thrown up in the air, he loses all sense of solidity, and actually seems to move too fast for the projector to keep up. And speaking of him losing solidity, he actually gets flattened into part of the background in a shot or two during "Gaston" after Gaston's chair lands on him.

Now, it's not all bad - in many cases, the stereographers do a nifty job in making Belle's village and the Beast's castle into three-dimensional environments, and the characters don't feel like two-dimensional elements in those worlds (although, as with The Lion King, characters like Beast and Phillippe the horse who don't have normal human proportions in their faces look off). The ballroom scene looks just as good as it should, considering the 3D effect it was going for twenty years ago. But for every success, there are at least two or three failures, and Beauty and the Beast doesn't deserve to be seen at less than its best.

That being said, I must admit that the ads for the post-conversions of Star Wars and Titanic get me a little excited (which kind of shocked me with Titanic; even as it becomes a weak, formulaic film in memory, it still makes for a terrific preview!). I think Captain America did a pretty good job with its post-conversion, as did Ra.One. Post-conversion is not an inherently evil or useless process, but it can't be done without more care than this movie demonstrates.

I like 3D, and I look forward to seeing what talented people like Andrew Stanton, Barry Sonnenfeld, Ridley Scott, Timur Bekmambetov, and Peter Jackson (and talented animation groups like Pixar, Dreamworks, and Aardman) can do with it in 2012. I think the format's boosters oversell it when acting like it's a revolution akin to adding color or sound to the movies. It's neither that nor necessarily the empty gimmick that its detractors make it out to be. If anything, I'd say 3D is the modern equivalent to CinemaScope. Yes, its use is in part commercially motivated as a way to get people to see movies in theaters rather than at home. It's more effective in some hands and in certain genres than it is in others. It takes a little effort to learn how to use it properly, and it will never completely displace what has come before. But for filmmakers who want to achieve a certain effect, and willing to shoot with it in mind for every shot, it's an exciting alternative, and I hope that it gives us many more Pinas than poorly-considered mutilations of classic films in the future.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 12 January 2012 in AMC Boston Common #15 (preview, digital 3D)

Many in the audience for this advance screening of Pina were either dance enthusiasts or dancers themselves, and they probably appreciated many details more than I did, especially where performance was concerned. And yet, I'll hazard that those who are attracted by an eye-popping trailer, technical curiosity, or just finding that it's the only movie that starts in the next twenty minutes will in many cases be just as impressed. One doesn't need to know the details to see something beautiful and difficult and recognize it as such, although I have no doubt that it gives flavor to the experience.

The audience will not learn a lot about who Pina Bauch was, or her history. The dedication at the beginning and use of the past tense indicates that she died recently, and it's easy to pick up from context that, though she seldom danced herself toward the end of her life, she was a brilliant and innovative choreographer. What we hear from interview subjects makes her sound, if anything, more enigmatic. What director Wim Wenders, the members of Pina's company, and other dancers do is present her work - pieces large and small that are presented on stage, in a rehearsal hall, or on location.

And... wow. There are at least a dozen different numbers presented in whole or in part, and they are pretty amazing. Even if the viewer doesn't know much about dance, the first major sequence covers the stage in dirt to emphasize what sort of hard, sweaty work it can be, while later bits will sometimes allow the audience to think that a bit is kind of boring or pretentiously arty before dropping a bit that astounds with the sheer level of precise, strong athleticism it requires. One later number floods a part of the stage with water, and I couldn't help but think, even while admiring the beauty of the action, that if I were jumping around that barefoot, I would inevitably slip and wipe half the company out. Even setting aside the physical difficulty, the numbers are beautiful, as often filled with whimsy as drama.

For many, seeing them in this movie will likely be as close as they get to seeing these performances in person, not just because few cities have dance troupes as accomplished as Bauch's. Wenders and cinematographer Hélëne Louvart shoot the picture in 3D and make some of the best use of the format that anybody has, often setting their cameras up to capture the stage exactly, mimicking the sense of being in the audience at a performance in all three dimensions. It's not just where they place the camera that creates the feeling of being in the audience, though - they manage to keep everything in focus, which means one's eyes are not necessarily guided to one part of the screen. Numbers often will have multiple things going on at different depths, and just as at a live performance, the viewer must choose how much attention to give each dancer, especially if circumstance or preference finds you close to the front as it did for me.

Don't think that Pina is just a static recreation of watching a stage performance, though - the camera angle changes to bring the audience closer to the action than even a front-row seat, though not so often to suggest performances being assembled from the best bits of multiple takes. One piece would not work on the stage as presented because it involves repeatedly cutting from one set of dancers to another. The dance is also often liberated from the stage and studio to take place on the streets or other public places, with Wenders and Louvart seeming to have particular fun presenting a long escalator, the edge of a sand pit, and Wuppertal's suspended trolleys in 3D.

Wenders also make an interesting choice or two in how he presents Pina and the other dancers to the audience outside of performance. There's a nifty use of special effects as two members of the troupe discuss Pina's "Café Müller" piece while it plays out within a dollhouse, for instance. What would be traditional talking-head interviews are instead presented as voice-overs to the dancers staring ahead, lost in thought; it's a bit of a trick to suggest that these are inner thoughts rather than reactions to questions, but it works, with the different languages reinforcing the idea that we are seeing not just a local company, but some of the best in the world. These moments generally happen alongside the dancer appearing in a piece, and it's intriguing to see that, in a business that is almost necessarily youth-obsessed, there are many spots for older dancers here, though I'm not sure whether this is how the pieces were conceived or if it's a case of allowing the people Pina worked with over her long career moments in the spotlight.

One other potentially interesting side-effect of shooting this in 3D: It will likely have this fine-arts documentary by a German director playing in the mainstream theaters that have the projectors to show it as well as the smaller boutique houses that might be its usual home, and potentially easier to discover for those who might not otherwise see the likes of it. I hope that turns out to be the case, because this is one of the best movies for that - not a lecture about what you should appreciate, or a lot of biographical details, but a demonstration of how something one might not give a lot of thought can be pretty amazing.

(Formerly at EFC; site now redirects to malware)

"Tangled Ever After"

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 13 January 2012 in the Arlington Capitol #1 (short, digital 3D)

Here's a pleasant surprise, and not just because amid the nervousness about the 3D conversion of Beauty & The Beast and the way a non-stop barrage of previews can sort of make one forget that you came for a feature, let alone the short that is scheduled to play before it. But even better, because even though the opening gives us Flynn Rider being kind of annoying and egotistical, it soon becomes a fast-paced slapstick cartoon featuring Maximus the horse and Pascal the chameleon, and that is not what I expected at all.

Oh, certainly, a lot of the human characters from Tangled show up, too - and I think Rapunzel's parents actually get a line or two, but the bulk of the action is silent comedy, and it does what a good cartoon should: Works at a fast pace, builds one gag on top of the last, and still understands that the anticipation of a joke can be just as funny as the actual joke itself. Maximus is an especially great character for that, as he's really just made for wounded pride.

(Amusingly, as much as Zachary Levi gets most of the dialogue as Flynn, that character probably gets the least screen time, with the more malleable characters like Maximus, Pascal, and the brigands showing up more. Also, it's a real delight to see that Rapunzel's adorable expressiveness remains even with an important part of the model changed!)

So "Tangled Ever After" at the very least means there's some reason to come out to the theater for Beauty and the Beast instead of just pulling the Blu-ray out. Hopefully Disney will do more shorts in the future, although I don't know that I want Disney them to lean entirely on characters from their features (more hand-animated Mickey & Donald!).

Beauty and the Beast

* * * * (out of four) (though only a * * * ½ presentation)
Seen 13 January 2012 in the Arlington Capitol #1 (modified re-release, digital 3D)

As much as I have bones to pick with what the people responsible for the 3D-ification of this movie did, it's important to remember that the underlying film itself is so good that it resists attempts to screw it up. The IMAX re-release that re-inserted a song that had been dropped before production? Now a little stretched out, but still a great movie. The Christmas "inter-quel" that took place between scenes of this one? Harmless. Processing every frame to create a 3D effect that occasionally seems neat but often seems incompetent? Can't really touch the core of what makes the movie work.

That core is a simple story well-told. The telling well includes songs that are catchy and delightful but also never bring the movie to a dead stop; they tell the story and establish character. It involves moments that are just scary enough for kids to worry a bit while still containing hints of swashbuckling adventure. It's a set of character designs that are perfectly suited to their medium being used with perfect precision by talented filmmakers.

And the story is better than you think. A few months ago, my sister-in-law posted a picture on Facebook that described all the bad lessons Disney Princesses teach little girls with a comment about how that's why their house is a Princess-free zone. And I get it, even if it does make shopping for their girls a little harder - but I think the comment about Belle (something along the lines of how all that's important is being attractive) really sells both her and the film short. I mean, sure, you can get that from this movie, but i think it's also made pretty clear that the people mainly interested in Belle for her appearance are not worthy of her. But the other thing, which you might not notice, is that Belle is a bit of a snob at the beginning of the movie, and while that's a bit of a problematic story arc - it would work a lot better if the movie ended with Belle and the transformed Beast and servants settling in the "Little Town" instead of their newly-pristine castle, for instance - she does become a nicer, more considerate person by the end. It's not quite as noticeable as the angry, snarling Beast who grows noble in deed as well as birth, but Belle's a pretty great character all-around.

So, anyway, even though I know that as a person with no kids, my ideas on what should be OK for them and what shouldn't basically means squat, I hope Dan & Lara let Dagny & Maisy watch this movie, at least. They can even have the DVD I retired when it came out on Blu-ray if they don't want to deal with the 3D version at their local theater.

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